Album Reivew: Amok – Atoms For Peace
If you and your friends were drafting up a “super group” from a pool of active musicians, and you had the first pick, then Thom Yorke would be a superbly solid choice. He is a remarkably gifted vocalist, an extremely proficient multi-instrumentalist, and has proven throughout the width and breadth of his career to be an artistic visionary. After the rest of the first round unfolds, and names like Kanye West, Win Butler, and Noah Lennox went off the board, the pick would once again fall on you. With Yorke on your roster, fulfilling a multitude of roles, the options for your second pick are practically unlimited (I, personally, would draft Kevin Shields in this slot for what all of the band-draft-analysts consider great value); seeing as how you can’t draft two people from the same band (those are the “rules”), then Flea would seem like a logical and very fitting choice.
At this point in the draft you really have to determine what sound you want your group to have, and because it’s the modern day and tastemakers have decided the guitar is nothing more than an anachronism tethering you to the embarrassments of a bygone century, you decide to start what could best be described as an electronic group. Using that sonic concept as your compass you draft not just one (Mauro Refosco), but two rhythm players (Joey Waronker) to hold down the percussive end of your bands spectrum, and as the final pick approaches you wonder who you are going to choose to tie this thing together. Then in a flash of brilliance it dawns on you... Nigel Godrich! Technically he is not “in” Radiohead, thus no draft rules are being violated, he can play synths and, in the end, can produce the hell out of your eventual record.
You would leave your friends basement and its draft board behind (the hosts went all-out), and take your newly assembled "players" back to your house to listen to Fela Kuti records all night, while playing pool and getting massively stoned (or so the legend goes). The next morning your musicians would plug in and, in some cases, turn on their instruments, before composing and arranging the album they were enlisted to create.
It would all be pretty magical, right? The album would have no choice but to be a masterpiece, right? Um.... looks at the ground... no.
One of the major things I looked forward to when I started writing about music for the internet was the chance to finally elegantly laud the artists I’ve admired with the effusive praise I feel they deserve. Chief among them all was Radiohead, and the work of any man associated with the best band in the world. My first chance to rhapsodize about their collective greatness came with 2011’s King Of Limbs, a record which I was admittedly underwhelmed by upon first listen (I just died a little while writing that last statement)-but have come to enjoy as the years have passed. And now there’s Amok.
Like many others I was counting the days till I would be able to listen to Atoms For Peace’s debut record. I would fantasize about what the record’s polyrhythmic bounty would be like, what kind of nimble-yet-steady grooves Flea would lay down, how Godrich would present it all. My head conjured snippets of wildly adventurous music, which would not only be fantaastic sonically but would force me to consider my place in the Universe, and the frailties of the human psyche. Having listened to Amok several times I can tell you what the band actually released is Thom Yorke’s second solo record, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not what it could have been. Or, to put it more accurately, what I dreamed it would be.
All of the hallmarks you would expect are present from the initial measures of the album’s opener, Before Your Very Eyes. There are layered skittering percussions providing an entire ecosystem of dense counterpoint, Yorke provides a inimitable guitar-line, Flea slides in a wonderfully melodic groove, and Godrich ensures all of the synths haunt stunningly. Yorke’s voice floats above all of the elements, and in doing so makes the track feel familiar, in the ethereal which has become his. Amok’s first track is two things at one time: 1) An introduction to what the rest of the record will hold, and 2) A blueprint of what the rest the record will hold.
When Default’s uniquely fascinating intro slithered its way out of my speakers I was still not completely aware of any of Amok’s flaws, though because of the power of the internet, and the band's choice of singles, I was already a fan of the second track; thus it held no surprises for me. It was with the album’s third track, Ingenue, where I started to sense and ultimately accept the trend I may have been trying to ignore. There is something breathtakingly beautiful about Ingenue: on the one hand, the track’s combination of melody and arrangement work together to create something magnificent. On the other, Ingenue could possibly have been a better Radiohead song.
As Yorke was engaging in interviews as part of the promotional cycle for Amok he often lamented his inability to simply release an electronic record without any vocals; to paraphrase the man, people are only interested in a project if he is singing. Yorke finds himself in a circumstance where whenever he opens his mouth and sings a note it is instantly identifiable as sounding like the band which made him famous (I don’t care if he’s fronting a polka side-project); his timbre and cadence are equal parts unique and ubiquitous like that. Such a quandary is something which I imagine must eat away at Yorke- but he didn’t do himself any favors with the rest of the aesthetic decisions regarding Amok. The cover art was created by the Stanley Donwood (the British artist who does all of the album art for all of the Radiohead releases), and Amok’s gray-scale design is very similar to that of Yorke’s first solo effort, Eraser. Once we are brought inside the cover to the actual music, there are once again too many similarities (even though some may be on the subconscious level) in the aural capacity for Yorke, or (ESPECIALLY) Godrich, to NOT assume everyone would compare it to, and hold it up to the standards of, Radiohead... I've just realized I am writing the word "Radiohead" far more than I intended to when I plotted out this review.
Although I haven’t expressed this notion much during the course of this review, I should note that Amok does possess some highlights. Unless has a wonderful chorus-build, which gives me the impression of flying through the future at moments. Judge Jury And Executioner is an early promo single which sounds more than a bit like There, There, but still possess enough of its own character to stand as its own piece, especially when you consider Yorke’s circuitous melodies. Finally there’s the albums self-titled closer, which gives the impression that it was composed early in the album’s songwriting process, as it feels like the Master Mold for every other song on this record.
I am sure that all of the men who sat down to work on this record wanted nothing more than for it to stand on its own. There is no doubt everytime York reads the word R_____d in a review for Amok it drives him mad. On some level I am sympathetic to his plight but, truth be told, at least he is the frontman for the best in the world. That has to be worth something, right? If we are forever comparing his work to that of R______d, well, at least he has a little something to do with that.